Introduction: I remember seeing the musical “The Fiddler on the Roof” some years ago, in which the main character, Tevye, sang a song called “If I Were a Rich Man.” In that song he prayed, “Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it's no shame to be poor. But it's no great honor either! So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?”
When his friend Perchik reminded him that “Money is the world's curse,” Tevye responded, “May the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover.”
I think this is a good illustration of the way in which even a poor man may be seduced by the desire for wealth. Down deep, you and I are no different from this Tevye character, and this means that we need the warning of this parable every bit as much those we consider to be rich. As Bob Deffinbaugh says in a sermon on this passage:
When I read the parable of the rich fool, I cannot help but think of Howard Hughes [Younger people might think of Bill Gates]. I do not know that he was a fool, but I do know that he was rich. I also know, from some of the reports that went out at the time of his death, that while he had accumulated a great deal of wealth, he did not enjoy any of it in his last days, perhaps his last years. In this sense, Howard Hughes is a present day example of that against which Jesus was warning us in our text.
The danger of thinking of a man like Howard Hughes as I read this text is that this implies that the text applies primarily, perhaps exclusively to the rich. To put the matter more pointedly, thinking of the rich fool in this text as Howard Hughes enables me not to think of myself as a “rich fool.” (Greed: The Affliction of the Affluent)
I think he has hit on a problem for all of us here. We probably all have the same tendency to think of this parable as pertaining to someone else when we read it – someone really wealthy, rather than someone like me! But we must remember as we examine this parable that it applies to us as well as to those whom we might regard as wealthy. Besides, by the standards of first century Palestine, most of us – if not all of us – would be regarded as wealthy anyway.
So, without further ado, let's begin our examination of this passage. We will do so under three headings: 1) the context of the parable, 2) the communication of the parable, and 3) the consequences of the parable.
I. The Context of the Parable
As with a number of the parables, a request made of Jesus, or a question posed to Him, provides the context. Here we find that the same is true of this parable as well. In fact, this parable is intended to illustrate and expand upon Jesus' response to a request recorded earlier in this text, both of which are found in verses 13-15. Let's take a look at the previous request and the response by Jesus to better understand what is going on here.
1. The Request
The request is found in verse 13.
NKJ Luke 12:13 Then one from the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
It is not necessary to get into the Old Testament laws regarding inheritance, since Jesus doesn't bother to do so. The point is that there is an inheritance to be divided and that the man wants Jesus to take his side in the matter. Apparently he saw Jesus as an authority whose word his brother would accept.
The man doesn't seem to be truly interested in justice, though, since he doesn't ask Jesus to listen to both sides of the argument before rendering a verdict. This helps us to understand Jesus' response, to which we will now turn.
2. The Response
The response of Jesus is found in verses 14-15.
NKJ Luke 12:14 But He said to him, “Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?”
Now, we know that Jesus really is ultimately the Judge of everyone, since He Himself said so on another occasion:
NKJ John 5:22-27 For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, 23 that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. 24 Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. 25 Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, 27 and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man.
The answer to the question “Who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” is obvious from this passage. It is God the Father who has made Jesus the Judge of all! But does the man realize this? I doubt it. In fact, I think the reason that Jesus answers the man the way that He does is in order to get him to think about it. The man has approached Jesus as though He is a judge, and he needs to stop and think about the implications of this, especially since Jesus is going to address the real issue that needs to be judged, namely the man's motives in seeking His help.
NKJ Luke 12:15 And He said to them [“the crowd,” vs. 13, thus the man asking the question along with the others present, possibly including the man's brother], “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”
Here is the real issue with which the man needs help. He needs someone to help him see his own covetousness, which, as Paul clearly teaches in Colossians 3:5, is idolatry.
The man also needs to realize that life is more than money or earthly possessions. As David Guzik observes:
It isn't that Jesus is unconcerned about justice; but that He is all too aware that this man’s covetousness will do him more harm than not having his share of the inheritance.
i. We may fight and fight for what is ours by right; and in the end, having it may do us worse than if we had let it go and let God take care of the situation.
ii. Here is where the deceptive nature of the heart is such a challenge. We often mask our covetousness by claiming we are on a righteous crusade. (Commentary on Luke, e-Sword)
So this is the context of the parable, the exchange between Jesus and a man who is deceived by his own greed – a man who has lost sight of what really matters. This leads us to our second point.
II. The Communication of the Parable
The communication of the parable is found in verses 16-20.
As suggested by Klyne Snodgrass in his book Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, the parable itself may be divided into four movements (p. 394). We will follow his suggested outline.
The First Movement – the Plentiful Yield of a Rich Man's Field
The first movement is about the plentiful yield of a rich man's field, and it is found in verse 16.
NKJ Luke 12:16 Then He spoke a parable to them [again “the crowd,” vs. 13; an “innumerable multitude,” vs. 1], saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully.”
Notice the way Jesus emphasizes the fact that the field itself produced a great yield. He does not credit the rich man with having accomplished anything great himself. I would suggest that in this way Jesus is reflecting the Old Testament teaching about such matters, teaching with which any good Jew should be familiar. For example:
NKJ Deuteronomy 8:7-17 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills; 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; 9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. 11 Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, 12 lest – when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; 13 and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; 14 when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; 15 who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty land where there was no water; who brought water for you out of the flinty rock; 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end – 17 then you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.”
Notice as we move on that the man's response to the abundant yield of his field is not to thank God as the giver of such a bounty, but rather to focus on what to do with it for his own satisfaction. Thus the man is falling prey to the very issue about which God had warned the Israelites when He brought them into the land in the first place. This will become apparent as we look at the next part of the parable.
The Second Movement – the Problem Presented by the Unexpected Yield
The second movement is about the problem presented by the unexpected yield, and it is found in verse 17.
NKJ Luke 12:17 And he thought within himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?”
The man had clearly not expected nor planned for such a great harvest as he now knew that he could expect. This is why he had no room to store such a yield. But this would also mean that he has ended up with more than he actually needs, doesn't it? So what will he do? We will find out in the next part of the parable.
The Third Movement – the Solution to the Problem
The third movement is about the solution to the problem of the unexpected yield, and it is found in verses 18-19.
NKJ Luke 12:18-19 So he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul [ψυχή], 'Soul [ψυχή], you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.'”
Where is there any expression of thankfulness of God? Where is there any desire to use his unexpected and unneeded gains for God's purposes? Why does he not, for example, think of giving a greater thank offering at the temple, or of giving to the poor?
What we see here is a selfish desire in the rich man to take it easy and use everything for his own satisfaction and comfort. In the process he is looking many years down the road, but he fails to realize that there may be other unexpected events that could take place, other than just this unexpected windfall. And this leads us to the final pat of the part of the parable.
The Fourth Movement – the Unexpected Judgment of God
The fourth movement is about the unexpected judgment of God, and it is found in verse 20.
NKJ Luke 12:20 But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul [ψυχή, or life, as in the NIV] will be required [ἀπαιτέω] of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?”
A key term in this verse is the word translated required in the New King James Version. It is the Greek word apaitéō, which literally means “to ask for something to be returned” (Louw & Nida #33.165, BibleWorks), as when something has been borrowed and is owed back. It is used here “figuratively, of the concept of life as a loan from God” (Friberg #2458 , BibleWorks).
In other Words, even the life or soul the man possesses does not really belong to him! This is why God calls him a fool, because he has thought and acted as though all that he has is his own, including his own soul. But in reality all that he has – including his own life – is from God! And God is demanding back the life He has given this man.
The question God asks the man is, “Then whose will those things be which you have provided?” And the expected answer is that they will all belong to someone else! The man may not have thought one bit about sharing his possessions with anyone else, but in the end this is exactly what will happen. So, by hanging on so tightly to all that he has – including his own life – the man is actually losing it all in the end.
What Jesus is doing in this parable, then, is actually just driving home a point He has made before, when He taught, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” (Luke 9:24-25).
And so now – after having looked at the context of the parable and the communication of the parable – we are lead, finally, to think about its consequences.
III. The Consequences of the Parable
The consequences of the parable are seen in the application provided by Jesus in verse 21.
NKJ Luke 12:21 So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.
That is, the one whose life is consumed with covetousness and earthly treasures, rather that seeing all that he has as having come from God and as belonging to God, will end up like this rich fool – with absolutely nothing! Indeed, he will have forfeited even his own soul!
Being “rich toward God” means that we rightly acknowledge God as the source of anything good that we have, including our very lives, and we thank Him for these things and desire to use them for His glory rather than for our own selfish and sinful desires.
Conclusion: I would like to conclude with a reminder from the Apostle Paul, who followed Jesus in teaching about the dangers of storing up earthly riches and about the need to be rich toward God. As we look at a significant portion of his teaching in 1 Timothy 6, we will find helpful advice in this regard:
NKJ 1 Timothy 6:6-12, 17-19 Now godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. 8 And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. 11 But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. [How are we to be rich toward God and fight against the danger of earthly riches? Well, we are to seek in their place the spiritual riches of fruit of the Holy Spirit, and we are to focus on loving relationships with people, whom we are to value more than things. And this all because we value God's will more that our own. But Paul isn't finished, for he goes on to say in verses 17-19 …] 17 Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. [But how are we to “enjoy” all the things He has given us? The answer comes in the next verse …] 18 Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, 19 storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.”
There is no doubt that the Apostle Paul learned very well the lessons of this parable, and the Holy Spirit then inspired him to apply the same principles to us. May we also rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to heed this teaching and to keep God and His glory as the central focus of our lives! May we each come away from this teaching with a deeper reliance upon the Holy Spirit to enable us to “seek the things above, where Christ is,” as Paul said to the Colossian believers, and “to set [our] minds on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:1-2).